A progressive Tea Party?
Pantsuit Nation has 4 million members and groups popping up everywhere. But will it have staying power?
Alex Fus had never done much in politics before. But that all changed with the election of Donald Trump as U.S. president.
Fus says now that she doesn't ever want to feel the way she felt Nov. 9, the day after election day.
"Like I could have done more," she says. "I just assumed that it would go the right way."
So the recent Portland State University master's graduate went to an event in a park organized by Pantsuit Nation Oregon on Nov. 12. Now she works on the Daily Action team to create short projects — like a number to call or a petition to sign — that online followers can do every day to agitate for change.
Pantsuit Nation, an invitation-only Facebook group now with nearly 4 million members, got its start in Maine and soon exploded as a way for people — mostly women — to share stories of support for Hillary Clinton and progressivism without fear of mean comments. The group's posts must be approved by a moderator.
The idea has informally sprouted local groups, too, such as PN: Oregon Chapter, with more than 10,000 members; a Portland chapter of Pantsuit Nation on Facebook; and a less-secret Pantsuit Nation Portland on MeetUp.com, with more than 380 members.
In many ways, the spontaneous grassroots effort could be seen as similar to the Tea Party movement among Republicans in reaction to President Barack Obama's inauguration in 2009.
"I so hope so," Fus says. "If we could replicate for the progressives what the Tea Party has kept up for years ... I think it's so important that we do it."
That would take some uncommonly sustained effort, says Jim Moore, head of the Tom McCall Center for Policy Innovation at Pacific University. "Most of the groups just don't last that long," he says.
Moore says such groups are common after a big election, but by March usually no one cares anymore.
"It could be a political force. We have to wait and see what it does," Moore says.
"The Tea Party movement is a great parallel," he adds, because it started from anger and moved to Tea Party members winning political office.
"You have to win offices."
Starting from the heart
Paula Tin Nyo, a retired teacher and writer living in downtown Portland, talks a lot about moving hearts to hands — turning feelings into action.
"It started out as grassroots and it started out from the heart," Tin Nyo says of the Pantsuit movement. "What's beautiful about this time of loss is that a lot of people are newly activated across age, gender, race, other things, and we just basically want to welcome them."
That's why Tin Nyo helped facilitate a letter-writing campaign meeting on the evening of Nov. 30, at Prosperity Pie in Multnomah Village. There were suggested topics and template letters, but facilitators said they wanted to help attendees write whatever they were passionate about.
The meeting had a bit of a support group feel, with the 14 women — mostly strangers to each other — introducing themselves and unloading about how the election made them feel. But there were clear objectives too, and that pleased Heather Kelley of Northeast Portland.
"I definitely like that this group has a lot of solid action items," Kelley says. "I think so many people are galvanized to do something, versus sharing Facebook articles."
That's the idea, says Bridget Brooks, a Pantsuit Nation Oregon leader who helped organize the meet-up. A counselor by profession, Brooks says she wants to transform the fear and powerlessness she hears into empowerment.
"Something that's approachable, like a recipe is approachable," Brooks says. Encouraging them to write letters to lawmakers, she tells the group: "Women have an amazing ability around relationships and this is the beginning of a relationship-building process."
The physical meet-ups may be evidence that Pantsuit Nation members are going beyond the "clicktivism" of superficial online activism.
Terry Pinnell, a retired human resources professional living in Portland, is fired up to grow her group Oregon Nasty Woman into a MoveOn.org-style incubator for women in politics. Her group meets every Saturday and is aiming high — pushing to promote women and girls into public policy positions.
"We really want to be action-oriented with clear and precise goals," Pinnell says, noting that the group of more than 100 members is currently focusing on the ballot recounts in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, and the nomination of Court of Appeals Chief Judge Merrick Garland to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Natalie Sept — who has worked for politicians such as City Commissioner Nick Fish, U.S. Congresswoman Suzanne Bonamici, D-Beaverton and on Hillary Clinton's campaign — knows firsthand the enthusiasm some people feel for putting words into action after the election. Sept organized a Nov. 21 event called "What Now?" at Revolution Hall in Southeast Portland in a matter of days.
It was attended by about 1,500 people and 40 organizations, plus 600 streaming the live show portion online, she says.
"It was awesome," Sept says, adding that volunteer-driven organizations told her it was "the most successful tabling event they've ever been to."
Sept says she wanted to connect people to what they could do locally to promote their values — and the concept has resonated. She says people from places including Seattle, New York and Atlanta have contacted her to ask her advice on replicating the event there.
"I'm trying to see if this can be turned into more of a movement," Sept says.
'Now they believe it'
Sandra Jenkins is more skeptical. She isn't on Facebook, but liked the name Pantsuit Nation so showed up for the letter-writing group last week.
Jenkins says that as an elderly African-American feminist, she has seen her share of disappointment.
"You can tell people (about racism), but they don't believe it. Well, at least, now (with Trump's election), they believe it," Jenkins says.
"It was so easy for me to not believe," responds Kathryn Kreimer, a white Portland Realtor sitting next to Jenkins at the table. "But now I have to. I don't get that privilege. I feel like I just woke up out of a dream. I have to do something."